Why We Love the Books We Love

Love-in-a-mist flower with raindropsThis weekend, I had the displeasure of dealing with a minor flood in my basement. No lasting damage was done, except to the tall bookshelf that used to house my collection of books. Checking dozens of books for water damage and drying out the damp ones is not exactly my idea of a party. Nonetheless, it gave me a chance to think about how I came by these volumes and why I still keep them around.

Like anybody who’s gone to college for the liberal arts, I have a collection of books that I studied for classes. Some of them are laborious volumes of criticism and theory, and others are amusing novels that don’t take a day or two to read. What they all have in common is the level of scrutiny I have given them. I have analyzed and discussed their contents on an academic level, and I have a good understanding of where they fit in with their genre and their time period.

Other books in my little library are familiar in different ways.  There are encyclopedias of magical creatures, of fairy tales, of gods and goddesses from ancient civilizations around the globe: these, I go back to when I feel like I need to know how a particular mythic narrative works. Then, there are favorite novels, which I lose myself in to remind myself of the sheer pleasure of the written word. There are books of poetry, which I enjoy for their varied beauty at the same time as I mine them for lessons on effective technique.

I think it’s good to consider the relationships we have with different texts in our lives – even boring ones, like the drivers’ manuals in our glove boxes or the Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Things in Crock Pots. As writers, we seek to give each of our works a purpose. By considering the purposes of our favorite texts, we become a little more aware of how the best authors make their texts serve those purposes.

How long until the physical book is dead?

Boy wearing cap

Times have changed

Although the invention of printing is largely accredited to Gutenberg with his introduction of the metal plate technique in 1452, it really stemmed from the Chinese some 6 centuries before. However, even though Gutenberg (and then Caxton) started the ‘mass-production’ of books, it wasn’t until the rapid rise of literacy during the Victorian era (in 1840 over 30% of grooms and 50% of brides were literate compared to well over 95% by the turn of the century) had taken effect, that the possession of books became truly commonplace.

It’s now just over a century since then and we’re contemplating scrapping physical books entirely. E-book sales are now significantly exceeding those of printed books by varyingly accredited factors (this depends upon your point of view) but there’s no doubt that one is on the up and the other is on the way out. A simple tablet computer can hold tens of thousands of books, be searchable, updatable, capable of remembering where you are in each book, allow you to scribble notes and highlight text at your will. Not only that, e-books are cheaper and immediate. A few seconds after placing your order, you can be perusing its virtual pages.

No doubt there is a book-buying generation who won’t make the transition but they’re the same generation with failing eyesight and a demographic trend towards the final 3 letters one encounters in this world, RIP. Even allowing for POD (Print On Demand) books, there must be a point in the not too distant future where possessing a physical book will be as rare as it was half a millennium previously.

No books in the library

Toilet paper

Would you want to use virtual toilet paper?

Years ago I remember one of my wife’s teenage students proudly announcing that there were “No books in the library” – something which made us roar with laughter at the time (after she’d left, of course) and has since gone on to become a bit of a catchphrase in our establishment for when someone can’t be bothered to make an effort.

Obviously our teenage friend (now long grown up, of course) was referring to there being no (easy to find) books on the particular subject matter that she was interested in and not claiming that some over-educated gang of thieves (such as local politicians) had taken it upon themselves to clean the library out. Nowadays, of course, the idea of there being no physical books in a library is far from nonsensical – in fact it can only be a matter of time for most such establishments.

After all, I can store tens of thousands of books on my tablet – just think what a 1 petabyte (1,000 Terabytes) hard drive could hold.

The trouble is that this then opens a huge can of worms. In the old days, you went along, found a book, signed it out to yourself, went home to read it and that was that. One book meant one borrower. With e-books that goes out the window.

One book – (potentially) billions of borrowers.

Thus, unless the library of the future insists that you read your book on the library’s premises, you are going to have to download the book onto your own device and then go home and read it. Given that DRM (Digital Rights Management) is no safeguard for an author against their book being ripped off, what is to stop the borrower from circulating it? At the moment, relatively few digital books are borrowed but, as libraries move inevitably towards virtuality, it’s an inescapable conclusion that this is going to be a major influence on sales of e-books.

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